Thursday, May 10, 2012



“[Chinese characters] / Please forgive mefrom Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics by Jonathan Stalling
(Counterpath, Denver, 2011)

[Click on image for larger view.]

I chose this poem out of all those in Yingelishi because I found it online. Being almost entirely unfamiliar with the Chinese language, and given what Stalling has down with the Chinese characters (of that, more later) there was no other way to reproduce it.

This poem will be read twice. First, just as I find it. Second, as informed by Stalling’s concept and intentions. This second reading will not be an actual reading, it will be an explanation of what Stalling is doing (and mostly if not entirely in his language). 

It seems appropriate to note here that the one part of this project (of reviewing 28 poems in 29 days which later became 50 reviews in approximately 50 days) that continues to provide some discomfort is my (continuing) lack of faith that I can do justice to poems by reading them as stand-alone objects. Let me explain. And then explain my explanation. So: everything in this review will be doubled, which is appropriate, since this poem, since Stalling’s project, also doubles, at least …

OK. Explanation one:

First premise: a poem is an object. Second premise: Objects exist with or without relations to other objects. Third premise: Outside of certain thought-experiments (meaning: in actual fact) no object exists in isolation (all objects are in relation to other objects). Fourth premise: objects have two kinds of relations: endo-relations and exo-relations (each object is made of other objects; each object relates to external objects).

I will quote Levi R Bryant to explain what this means:

This point can be illustrated in terms of ecological theory. An ecological system is one object. It has a unique endo-relational structure that makes it act as one. But this ecological system both contains other ecological systems (for example, the ecology of a single tree in a rain forest), and contains other objects (frogs, trees, insects, soil, droplets of water, bacteria, birds, etc., etc., etc.). These other objects both rely on that eco-system for their own continued existence in a particular way, and are independent in their own right. If I emphasize reference to the particular way in which a subset or smaller scale object enjoys its existence within an eco-system, then this is to underline that the way an object exists within a particular texture of relations is a local actualization that does not exhaust the virtual potentiality or excess of the object. The object, in principle, can be detached from the ecosystem (though this might bring about a nil actualization: death), and this detachment would generate other actualizations or local manifestations that would never appear within that particular contexture of relations (here we might think of the sad fate of many animals in earlier zoos that began exhibiting markedly different behaviors in captivity). Without this sort of meriology we’re unable to account for these sorts of possibilities.

(Levi R Bryant, “Mereologies and Objects”, at objects/ Larval Subjects,  30 Jan 010)

Second explanation, in terms of the first:

A poem is an ecosystem within an ecosystem within an ecosystem etc etc ad infinitum. And while a poem’s endo-relational structure (its syntax, semantics, music, etc etc) may not change, its exo-relations (a change in the ecosystem of which it is a part, a movement from one ecosystem to another, certainly affects it. And it certainly affects how we relate to it. And it affects how we relate to its endo-relational structure as well.

So: I’m not sure I’m relating to a poem completely enough when I read it in isolation from the other poems in the same book, other books in the author’s oeuvre, other poems in the same tradition etc etc. (Think some aspects of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”). Tho I will give myself credit for reading these poems within some ecosystem(s), I think I might be missing some additional ones.

So, that’s an explanation of my discomfort. I think you will see why I discuss it here, because Stalling certainly intends to provoke discomfort. The poems in Yingelishi are discrete objects (objects with a particular endo-relational structure), but they exist in multiple ecosystems as well as multiple languages at the same time. And they call into question the very nature of what we do when we read (or speak, for that matter).

In any case, to my first reading.

[Chinese characters]: this line (or is it the title?) is unintelligible to me, since I lack Chinese, but it does put me in mind of Pound’s Cantos, and leads me to expect a poem made up of “gists and piths.”

“Please forgive me”: Tho I do not know for what the speaker / writer wishes to be forgiven, I do understand the line, and I am reminded of WC Williams’ poem about the plums.

So far, I feel as if I’m on some sort of modernist ground.

“pǔ lì sī , fó gěi fú mí”: A somewhat strange phoneticization of the previous line. While I do not understand why this is here, I wonder if I am “overhearing” a conversation between a native and a non-native English speaker. I assume that English is the primary language here because it’s not the Chinese that’s phoneticized.

[Chinese characters]: Two more lines of  “unintelligible” Chinese.

“Vast private profits, Buddha offers impermanent / mysteries”: A translation of the previous two lines? This feels a lot like one of Pound’s Cantos. I make connections where I can: between “Please forgive me” and “Vast private profits”. It’s difficult for me, given my personal political bent, to not assume that anyone who has made “[v]ast private profits” these days does NOT need to beg for forgiveness.

There are several ways I can relate “Buddha offers impermanent / mysteries” to the connections I’ve made so far. First, I can read it as a rebuke to my own anger at the great wealth transfer over the last three or four decades, i.e., “Yeah, the human universe sucks right now, but it won’t stay this way. Your anger is your koan, so suck on it, buddy.” Or, I can read it as a continuation of the apology, as in “Please forgive me, I’ve been greedy, but now I understand that my greed is contrary to the great Dao …” 

Now let’s let Stalling have his say. This is from the same website whence I grabbed the poem (Jerome Rothenberg’s  Poems and Poetics):

II. Introducing Yíngēlìshī

I call this fusion of my two languages, Sinophonic English, or, Yíngēlìshī … (spelled in Sinophonic English). I have chosen these characters to oppose popular ideas of “Chinglish” as “bad English.” Instead, I want to bring awareness to its eerie poetic beauty, its haunting music, and to the absolutely singular poetry it is capable of generating. Of course, “Sinophonic English” is not particular to the students in the park, but is fast becoming a dominant global dialect of English. A fusion of the two primary languages of globalization: Chinese and English, variations of this Sinophonic English is being spoken by more people than there are Americans alive (over 350 million), and has already begun to transform the language of the global marketplace. English purists everywhere will no doubt begin to clamor toward “rescuing” English from this Sinophonic dialect, but I am more interested in experimenting with this new global language. Since 1997 I have been experimenting with this linguistic fusion and working toward a transpacific imagination where a Chinese-English poetry, poetics, philosophy, and ethics might be born in a language that belongs to both Chinese and English speakers, and yet neither as well. But in the end, I have simply fallen in love with both the poetry generated between these languages and the translingual voices that emanate from them.

To bring this dream of Yíngēlìshī … into the world, I have rewritten a large portion of a totally ordinary English phrasebook that you can pick up in most any Chinese bookstore, which teaches English through transliteration. In a sense, this book is not unlike Duchamp’s “urinal” insofar as both are “found art.” But I have totally rewritten this book by changing all the original’s simple Chinese characters (chosen to “pronounce” common English phrases) into complex Chinese poetic phrases and “poems.” I have recomposed the Chinese in mixture of modern and Classical characters to suggest passages resonating with Confucian meanings like the Sinophonic fusion of the characters … gū dé mào níng which can be translated as “Even alone, the Moral one appears peaceful” but is heard by the English speaker as “Good Morning.” So the Sinophonic poems that make up the first half of this book exist as short Chinese character stanzas, but like the phrase book, they are sandwiched within Chinese and English to reveal to all readers what is taking place both aurally and semantically in the poem. Take for example this more Buddhist leaning stanza:
[JBR: this is the poem I’ve chosen]

Here only the line “[Chinese characters]” is truly Sinophonic English poetry, but the other lines are there to let both Chinese and English readers know what the line means in both Chinese and English.

So on one level this is a book of experimental Chinese poetry that blends classical allusions and contemporary vernacular to be read as “stand-alone” Chinese poems, yet to the English speaker, the very same characters resonate accented English phrases that tell the story of a Chinese speaker who uses his/her limited English to negotiate the trials of traveling to and becoming lost in America. For as it turns out, the phrases of this handbook end up constructing a narrative, a tragedy in fact since the “protagonist” is robbed soon after arriving in America and is left alone in an alien language and land with no friends, no money, no passport and no way to understand the English language which appears to have swallowed her/him whole. When I first read this simple phrase book, I felt so moved, not because of its melodramatic tenor that capitalizes on the commonly exaggerated danger of traveling abroad, but because of the accented voice that never really becomes English because it never really stops being Chinese. If the vulnerable voice of the protagonist is the tragic “chanted song” of this book, then the poems that take shape within the phonetic architecture of this simple story are its beautiful poetry.

What emerges on the pages
is a figment of a transpacific imagination,
a dimly remembered dream of translingual consciousness
born in the strange half-light of cross-linguistic procreation.

Regardless of whether you are an English Speaker
a Chinese speaker (or both),
it is my hope that you will wake up
from this dream of reading
with the dim memory of having spoken in another’s language.

III. “Evolving from Embryo and Changing the Bones: Translating the Sonorous”

The second half of this book offers a variation on the dream of Yíngēlìshī  … What would it be like to translate sound itself? What if we could translate not only the meanings of poems, but their songs? The poems in this section arise from such an attempt by invoking Huang Tingjian’s (… 1045-1105) notion of … or “evolving from embryo and changing the bones” which instructs poets to create their own poetry by either mimicking the content or the form of earlier poetry. An exquisite poet of the first order, Huang Tingjian, raised mimicry to the level of high art and philosophy by revealing that every act of mimicry results in an act of transformation. My translations follow both of Huang’s directives to mimic both the content (all translation does this) and the form by following all the basic aural constraints of Classical Chinese poetic forms (number of syllables, rhyme schemes, and tonal prosody).

[Chinese characters]
kè shè qīng qīng lin sè xīn
guèst ìnn greēn greēn wil lòw sheēn

Yet these poems are also only figments of transpacific imagination: for even the same sounds (untranslated) are not the same sounds to those who hear them. There is no single, original song because everyone who hears it, feels it differently (especially those from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds). So why try… Ezra Pound would argue that one should “Fill [your] mind with the finest cadences [you] can discover, preferably in a foreign language.” But I am not sure we need to reduce these poems to such “usefulness”; instead in my earliest publication of Sinophonic English I wrote that “I write Chinese in English and English in Chinese, which, in its simultaneous success and failure, offers not a translation but a space for the translingual to be imagined.” (Chain, 2003, 109)

I should mention that the poem I’ve chosen to analyze is from the second part of Yingileshi, from a section called “Gratitude”. I don’t really think that anything Stalling writes invalidates my reading, but it shows how utterly partial it is. Perhaps it shows how partial all reading is. I suppose I could go all poststructualist here, but I think I’ll stay a little more homegrown, and quote Donald Rumsfeld’s famous (and perhaps only true) line, “ … as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don’t know we don't know.”

There’s no end to the unknown unknowns. Which is why “the way of poetry is eternal” – and always an adventure, always unspeakably exciting.


[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days.  While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another.  So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review.  To wit: NEXT.  And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]


John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.

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